While watching or playing soccer, you will probably have noticed that each team makes multiple substitutions during a game. These subs are not arbitrary, and there are strict rules around how and when teams can substitute a player. The most significant rule is how many subs a single team can make during a game.
Each team is allowed to make a maximum of five substitutions during a soccer game. The rules state that a team can only substitute a player during a stoppage in play and when the referee grants permission. The number of substitutes is limited to prevent too much interference during the game.
Substitution rules in soccer are different from many other sports so let’s look at substitutions in more detail to understand how the rules work.
Number of Substitutions Allowed in Soccer
Throughout soccer history, the number of substitutions permitted has evolved to where we are now.
A total of 5 substitutions per team are allowed in a game of soccer. These can be made at any break in play throughout the game as long as the referee allows it. Until 2020 a team could only make three substitutions during a game.
There are only two significant exceptions to this substitution limit.
- In International friendly soccer games
- and in youth soccer
In a non-competitive game such as a friendly match between two international teams, you may often see more than five substitutions allowed.
More than five substitutions are allowed in an international game because one of the main reasons for these games is to try out some players and tactics in a non-competitive environment.
Multiple substitutions allow teams to change their players regularly throughout a game.
In youth soccer, there is often no limit on substitutions. This is because the players are often not yet physically ready for the demands of an entire game and need to rest to avoid injury.
Because of these, you may see more than five substitutions used during a game at the youth soccer level.
For more info on youth soccer, check out my guide to youth soccer rules.
How the Substitution Limit Has Changed Over Time
The rules and limits currently in place regarding substitutions are not how they have always been.
Making a substitution of any sort in a soccer game was first introduced in 1958. (Although the concept was experimented with at times before that, including in the qualifying games of the 1954 World Cup.)
At this stage, only one substitution of an outfield player was permitted per team. You could also substitute the goalkeeper if necessary, but that was it.
Then in 1988, the number of substitutes allowed increased to 2, and in 1995 the IFAB permitted three substitutions per game.
From 2018 there was an allowance in the rules for a 4th substitution to be made if a game continued into extra time. But teams could only use this in specific soccer competitions such as the Champions League and Europa League.
The next significant change wasn’t until 2020 when FIFA changed the rules to allow teams to make five substitutions per game.
Although this move was temporary at first, it proved a popular decision. So in 2021, the lawmakers of the game recommended the rules of soccer permanently allow 5 substitutes per team during a game.
For more information on the rules of the game, check out my guide – The Rules of Soccer: A Beginners Guide.
See the table below for a rundown of how the substitution limits in soccer have developed over time.
|Number of substitutions permitted during a game
|Zero substitutions permitted
|1 substitution permitted
|2 substitutions permitted
|2 substitutions plus 1 for an injured goalkeeper
|3 substitutions permitted
|4th substitute permitted (in extra time only)
|5 substitutions permitted
The Reasons Soccer Limits the Number of Substitutions
If you have watched more than one soccer game, you will have seen the coach making a substitution. But there is always a limit to how many substitutions a team can make.
Why does soccer limit subs? The main reason for limiting subs, or substitutions, in soccer is to prevent too much interference with play once the game is underway. Unlimited substitutions could significantly disrupt the game’s flow and potentially cause an unfair advantage to one of the teams.
There are several reasons why soccer allows the number of substitutions it does during a game. Let me explain them to you now.
Limits Interference During a Game
One of the main ideas behind this limitation is to allow the game to keep going and not interfere too much with what is happening.
Allowing multiple substitutions during a game could force an excessive amount of breaks in play.
You may have seen this for yourself.
In some non-competitive or “friendly” soccer games, there is no limit on the number of substitutions that a team can make. As a result, these games can often feel like they constantly stop to let yet another player join the game.
All these breaks negatively affect the momentum of the game.
Reduces the Impact of Substitute Getting up to Speed
It takes time for a substitute to catch up to the pace of the game.
I remember multiple times coming on as a substitute and feeling as though it took me 20 minutes to be mentally and physically operating at the same pace as the players already on the field.
You have to remember that the players who started the game have been operating a full speed from the moment the game started.
In contrast, players on the sidelines have either just been sitting or doing some light exercise to keep warm. So it’s a big jump to go from that to giving it all.
Forces Adequate Tactical Preparation
Limiting the substitutions also gives more weight to the tactical preparation of the team.
In other sports, such as Football, different players, or groups of players, come on for different plays. In soccer, this isn’t an option.
All the 11 players starting the game have to be aware of multiple different tactical options and techniques they may need to use depending on how the game goes.
A good soccer coach will have prepared their team for several scenarios and clearly explained how they want them to adapt in those instances.
Challenges the Coach’s Decisions
The substitution limit forces the players not just to be physically fit but also encourages the coach to be tactically aware.
Limited substitutions mean the coach has to think very carefully about what players they want to introduce to a game.
The coach can’t just throw on a player, see if it improves things, and then just try someone else if it’s not working.
The coach has to know their players, how they perform, and which player will be best to make any changes the coach feels the team needs.
It Prevents Bigger Clubs From Gaining an Unfair Advantage
An unlimited amount of substitutions could also give a potential advantage to the team that can acquire the best players.
Clubs such as Real Madrid or Manchester United, which are among the richest soccer clubs in the world, have an unparalleled ability to pay for the best players in the world to play for them.
If they have the option to have the best starting 11 and replace that 11 with the next best 11 in the world partway through a game, that would be a significant advantage.
A team that wasn’t in the same financial position and whose substitutes weren’t as talented would struggle to compete.
A Game Has to Have Rules
Now, on one level, you may argue that there doesn’t need to be a “reason” to introduce a rule into a sport.
There have to be some rules in any sport to give it some structure, right?! So why not a restriction on subs?
And there probably is some weight to that argument. But with any rule, several factors are considered when the decision is made.
Allows the Game to Be Affected by the Player’s Condition
Another reason that I haven’t yet mentioned is the fact that having a limit allows the game to be affected by the stamina and endurance of the players.
This applies to both physical and mental endurance.
You may initially think that this could only have a negative effect. When players get tired, the quality of the game will go down. And you would probably be right.
But you have to remember that, ultimately, soccer is a sport played and watched for entertainment.
If soccer is for entertainment, why don’t you see more cheerleaders during the breaks in the game? Find out in my article: Does Soccer have cheerleaders?
As the game gets nearer to the end, players naturally get more tired, and because of this, the game is more likely to open up.
This has the potential to provide an exciting end to any game.
Challenges Players to Stay Fit
This also incentivizes the players to maintain a high level of fitness.
If every player knew the coach would just substitute them as soon as they get tired, some players might not worry about their ability to last to the end of the game.
Soccer players spend a large part of their week’s training hard, aiming to improve their abilities both with the ball and without.
This incentive to increase their stamina and athletic ability has the effect that they should perform at a higher level for longer in a game.
Find out how a soccer player trains and specific workouts that the pros use in my article: “How a Soccer Player trains.”
It Makes the Game About More Than Just Tactics
It also prevents the game from simply becoming about the tactical side of things.
Suppose the coach could substitute a player as often as they wanted. In that case, the likelihood is that they would keep bringing in new players based on what was happening in the game at that time.
The advantage of not being able to do this is that you have to have more well-rounded players playing from the start. Players who are both tactically aware as well as physically and mentally fit.
Theoretically, every spectator should see a higher quality game if they’re watching players of higher physical and mental ability.
Limiting the number of subs is a win for the players, the coaches, and the spectators.
*Check out the next post – Does a Soccer Header Hurt? And How to Minimize any Pain*